The change can happen pretty quickly. Your usual buoyant ‘LET’S DO THIS’ attitude to training begins to falter. Possibly because you keep getting sick or aren’t sleeping so well. Your appetite has changed, and one minor injury has suddenly turned into a series of niggling issues. You’re wondering what the problem could be, why you aren’t feeling that great currently. What you might not suspect is that you’re overtraining.
You could be forgiven for thinking overtraining is something that happens to Olympic-level athletes. Someone who, unlike you, has an actual trainer. But without someone knowledgeable watching your progress, you’re more likely to burn out without even realizing what is happening.
In a sense, you must be your own PT to avoid overtraining. If you have a coach, they will plan your workouts mindfully, monitor your stats and recovery and ask you to report how you feel after your workouts. When you don’t have a coach, you must pay attention to all these details yourself. Otherwise, you’ll likely struggle for reasons you can’t quite explain.
So, here’s how to spot the signs of overtraining, recover from them and avoid them in the future as if you, too, are an elite athlete.
Also known as overtraining syndrome or athlete burnout, overtraining can appear in many ways. It could be easy to misinterpret the signs at first. After all, you may not guess that a weakened immune system is linked to your burnout from exercise, but it’s a very common indicator that you’re overdoing it. So, here is a range of symptoms to look out for if you suspect you may have been overtraining.
- Slower recovery in your heart rate after exercise: an early warning sign.
- Persistent colds, flu, or respiratory infections: a key symptom of overtraining.
- Persistent muscle soreness or pain from training: either during or after exercise. Also includes the area feeling ‘tight’ after the pain has subsided.
- Lack of motivation/enthusiasm for exercise
- Decrease in performance
- Frequent or accumulating injuries
- Insomnia or sleep disturbances
- Reproductive issues: including missed menstrual cycle/s for female athletes.
- Depression, stress, irritability, and restlessness
- Struggle to concentrate mentally.
- Change in appetite
- Loss of body mass
How can I tell if I’m overtraining?
As you can see from the wide range of overtraining symptoms above, there are many ways that burnout can show up due to exercise. Understanding what overtraining can look and feel like for you is essential to your workout process.
Primarily, it’s about listening to your body and learning not to dismiss any warning signs. For some of us, that is easier to do than others as we aren’t necessarily that ‘tuned in’ to what our bodies are trying to tell us. So, here are some ways to track and observe your physical and emotional responses.
Keep a training journal
Whether it’s a written journal, spreadsheet, or training notes you make in Polar Flow, a workout log is a great way to track your feelings about your training. It prompts you to reflect after each session and log this, so over time, it’s much easier to identify symptoms if you’re overtraining.
Listen to your body and reflect on how you arrive at each session and what happens throughout it. What do you feel like during training? Does the same training plan feel tougher than before? Do you feel abnormally tired during a workout? Is it challenging to find the motivation to finish a run like you planned?
Monitor your heart rate
Listen to your body quite literally by using a heart rate monitor. For many people, heart rate monitors can be an alarm that alerts them if they’re training too hard.
Your morning resting heart rate is one metric that can be used as an indicator of overtraining. Track your resting morning heart rate two or three days after a hard workout. If it’s significantly elevated from its usual average (seven or more beats per minute), that’s a sign that you’re not fully recovered from the workout.
Training Load Pro is another excellent tool, providing a helpful visual guide about whether you are under or overtraining. You can quickly see if your workouts have pushed you into the red ‘Overreaching’ zone to know if you’ve been overdoing it.
Your training load is calculated by analyzing both your strain and tolerance from your exercise to see how much effort you put in today measures up against the recent training you have done. This feature may tell you if you are doing too much (or too little) even before you feel it in your body.
Try the Orthostatic Test
Combined with how you feel daily, the orthostatic test is an excellent tool for diagnosing overtraining. This test measures your heart rate (how often your heart beats per minute) and heart rate variability (how much the interval between beats varies).
The orthostatic test isn’t simply something you do once but rather use regularly. By tracking changes in your heart rate and heart rate variability through repeated tests, you will be able to notice disturbances in the autonomic nervous system caused by overtraining.
Observing this variation over time tells you whether your body is recovering properly. You can use these results for guidance on the right intensity for your workouts, so you can be consistently mindful about overtraining with every session.
How to recover from overtraining
What should you do if some or all of the above sounds familiar?
If you suspect you are beginning to burn out, you can easily take action to ensure you don’t start overtraining. However, if you can’t bounce back in a few days, you have probably been overtraining and need to focus on a longer-term recovery plan.
When you’re feeling a little burnt out
The best thing you can do when you begin to experience burnout is to focus on caring for yourself, nourishing your body to assist your recovery. Here are some great ways that you can quickly take care of yourself.
- Keep up your hydration: pay close attention to how much water you drink throughout the day.
- Eat your greens: plus your proteins and carbs, to make sure you are getting all the nutrients your body needs to fuel your workouts and recovery.
- Chill for a few days: speaking of recovery, take a few days off from training, and focus on getting quality sleep. Don’t worry about detraining – your body needs a break right now.
- Book a massage: if you’re struggling with DOMs, book yourself in for a sports massage. If not, maybe treat your body to a regular massage. Remember, it’s been doing all that hard work.
- Try some relaxation techniques: take time to regularly do your Serene™ breathing exercise, or try this 10-minute meditation track to calm your body and mind.
- Return to exercise gently: don’t jump straight back onto your usual training plan but try to use different muscle groups by spending a few days doing low-impact exercises like walking, yoga, or going for a leisurely cycle.
When you’ve overtrained
If you try all of the above and still don’t feel like your usual self within a few days, you will likely have overtrained. Recovering from overtraining often takes four to 14 weeks, so, unfortunately, there is no quick fix. Here’s how to create a longer-term strategy to help you bounce back.
- Mindfully plan your recovery: everyone is different, so you probably don’t know precisely how long it will take. So, set aside the next two months to focus on your recovery and continue assessing as you go. It could take less than that, but it could also take longer, so minimize your expectations.
- Prioritize sleep: make it your goal during these months to get seven to nine hours of sleep every night. Stay calm if you have a poor night of sleep, but overall, try to maintain this quantity of rest time.
- Try and avoid illness: this is often easier said than done. However, you will be more prone to catching colds, flu, and other viruses as your immune system is probably weak. So, take precautions when those around you are ill, and make sure you are up to date on any of your regular immunizations.
- Ensure you are eating enough: now is a great time to focus on your macros to ensure your body has everything you need for recovery. Nutritionally, you’ll also be prepped for when you return to full training again.
- Start crosstraining: shift the focus of your training plan away from the muscles you usually target and onto other parts of your body. Try different sports and workouts to stay active but with some variation. But don’t overdo it. Rember, you’re still recovering, so pace yourself and alternate the days you target specific body parts.
- Talk to a doctor: if after a few rest days you don’t notice any improvements (for example, you’re still fatigued and feel muscle soreness), call your doctor.
How to avoid overtraining
They say prevention is always better than cure, so how can you try and avoid overtraining? Always remembering to pace yourself is a great place to start. Ramp up exercises gradually, using the classic progression rules if your sport is endurance-focused or strength-focused. That means increasing no more than 5 to 10 percent every few weeks, be it an increase in intensity, distance, or weight load.
Also, remember that illness or injury is not a reason to ‘double down’ the following week. You don’t have to make up for lost time in your training. Accept it as rest and recovery and continue with your regular training schedule rather than pushing yourself harder.
Speaking of rest, ensure you regularly get 7-9 hours at night, especially on a training day. Plus, give yourself 48 hours to recover after intense workouts or activities. Not only will it help you avoid overtraining, but getting lots of sleep has the added bonus of helping you build muscle.
Finally, be mindful of your attitude. A 2021 study from York St John University, UK, found that those who tended towards “perfectionism” and were prone to fixate on any mistakes were more likely to experience burnout. The pressure and stress of these mindsets can not only affect your nervous system but cause you to ignore signs of overtraining in an attempt to improve your performance.
Overtraining: it can happen to anyone
The most important thing to remember is that fitness should always be about your health. There’s nothing to be gained from sacrificing it. So, if you find yourself struggling with insomnia, injuries, and irritability (to name but a few symptoms), think about why you are willing to risk your health, happiness, and general wellbeing.
You could be new to working out or have been training for decades, but no matter what, overtraining can happen to you. So, take it seriously, be your own PT, and you’ll find yourself feeling excited about training again in no time.
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Please note that the information provided in the Polar Blog articles cannot replace individual advice from health professionals. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.